From fashion to furniture Ralph Lauren offers home style at couture prices


Recall Hollywood in its heyday. Movies were black and white. Dialogue was memorable. And martinis were dry.

But, most of all, movie stars looked the part. Glamour, my dear, was de rigueur.

Gone forever? Not quite. First, Ralph Lauren revived the high style of 1930s Hollywood in his spring clothing collection. As the theme from "Sunset Boulevard" played, skinny models slinked down the runway in shimmery glitter gowns that would make Harlow proud. The finale was pure show biz -- the last model appeared in a white satin strapless gown clutching a fake Oscar.

Three weeks later, Mr. Lauren performed an encore in his "Hollywood" furniture collection at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C.

Mr. Lauren's furniture evokes memories of "Grand Hotel" and "Dinner at Eight." You easily could imagine Clark Gable adjusting his white tie in front of "Isabella," a round mirror with silver-leaf frame. Or Jean Harlow in a slinky gown reclining on the "King Bench," a faux zebra in silk velvet. Or John Barrymore in a smoking jacket puffing on a pipe while he sat in "Bette," a chair with stainless steel arms and pewter metallic leather upholstery.

The suggested retail prices were haute as well -- $2,085 for the mirror, $5,970 for the chair and $3,410 to $5,970 for the bench, depending on the upholstery fabric.

But this is an example of Ralph Lauren doing what he does best -- designing a lifestyle that creates the illusion of rich sophisticates with impeccable taste. And it's that ability that brought the Ralph Lauren Home Collection from a new business in 1983 to $500 million in retail sales last year. In addition to furniture, he and his team design bedding, blankets, fabrics, wall coverings, draperies, floor coverings, towels, potpourri, dinnerware, flatware, crystal, giftware, table linens and napkin rings.

Although other fashion designers have crossed over to dressing the home, Mr. Lauren remains the most successful. And the most copied.

When Mr. Lauren does distressed leather with nail-head trim, suddenly it becomes the sofa other manufacturers ape. When he does a variation on an 18th-century French chair with leather seat and fabric back, copies appear at the next market.

"He's a pacesetter," Lester Gribetz said in a telephone interview from his New York City home.

Mr. Gribetz is a marketing consultant and former vice chairman of Bloomingdale's in charge of the furniture division.

But even upscale Bloomie's flinched at his pricing when the retailer introduced the Ralph Lauren Home Collection 12 years ago.

"We discussed his retail pricing," Mr. Gribetz said. "He wanted the finest, and we thought nobody was going to buy a set of 100 percent linen sheets for $1,000. Over the years he has gotten more realistic."

Despite lower sheet prices, Mr. Lauren's furniture prices are still beyond most budgets. So why spend the extra money?

"The knockoffs will never be the same. His standards are very high," said Mr. Gribetz, who recently spent about $20,000 for four leather "Writer's Chairs" for his new White Plains, N.Y., office.

"A Ralph has an intrinsic value and styling not available on the market. It is not a sham. There is no way it's deception. The people who understand that fact would rather pay extra for something with style that is inordinately comfortable."

Mr. Gribetz and the trade publications say that the main reason for this style and comfort is Mr. Lauren's insistence on quality -- from the design through his staff's monitoring of how the products are displayed.

Most of the furniture is made by Henredon, the upscale manufacturer known for classic quality workmanship. The exception is a small line of rustic furniture made from the wood of old barns by a California craftsman.

HFN, a weekly trade publication for the home-furnishings industry, singled out Mr. Lauren in an April article, noting his business is virtually unparalleled among ready-to-wear designers who also do home furnishings.

Unlike designers who merely allow their name to be used by a manufacturer, Mr. Lauren has 110 employees in his home division -- a design staff, a production staff, a team for advertising and publicity, and a sales group.

"All too often," HFN wrote, "designers treat home fashions as a stepchild to apparel and don't invest the time and effort required to understand the consumer."

Some industry observers say it's this understanding of the consumer that makes people willingly pay up to $10,000 for a bed and $320 for a set of queen sheets to put on it.

Arline Gardner, chairman of the design marketing program at Parsons School of Design in New York, said Mr. Lauren has a vision for what he wants customers to look like and who they are.

"The key to marketing is to always keep your eye on the consumer," she said in a telephone interview, noting Mr. Lauren is used as an example in the school's entrepreneurship course. "He is probably the best marketer in the entire [clothing and home furnishings] industry."

Kim Shaver, consumer editor of Furniture/Today in High Point, N.C., agreed that Mr. Lauren knows what the consumer wants. And although it's the back-to-basics '90s, people want quality and still are willing to pay for it.

"In one way, people are more conservative and are not spending their money," she said in a telephone interview. "At the same time, there are certain areas where we still indulge ourselves. If they feel it's worth it, they will spend."

Ms. Gardner said the key to the "lifestyle" is in Mr. Lauren's advertising. The people in the ads appear to be enjoying the good life -- sailing on expensive yachts, relaxing on country estates and playing polo. They look like the well-heeled who went to boarding school and call each other Bunny and Biff.

"What is Ralph Lauren selling?" Ms. Gardner asked. "He's selling old money and an image. He appeals to the customer who doesn't want to look like new money."

As Mr. Lauren expands, that customer base may include those who cannot afford his higher-priced line. This spring he introduced RALPH, a lower-priced line targeted at a college-age and just-past-college consumer.

Thus far, the furniture segment has only one piece -- a high-tech metal bed featured in an advertisement in the June issue of House Beautiful and other magazines.

The suggested retail? Still hefty at $4,485 for a queen size. In comparison, beds in the Home Collection range from $3,285 for wicker to $8,685 for hand-carved mahogany.

A less expensive collection of towels and sheets is already on the market. A queen-size sheet costs $45 compared to the Home Collection sheets at $55 to $160. Solid bath towels are $14 compared to $17 for the "Estate" towel, $19 for "Polo" and $25 for the Ralph Lauren Home Collection.

Kathryn Richer, spokeswoman for the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, says major furniture introductions will be made in fall 1996.

"Our goal is to develop some furniture that has low and accessible pricing and fun design," Ms. Richer said.

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